KIGALI (Reuters) - A Rwandan high court judge ordered the release on bail on Friday of an opposition activist and her mother who were detained last year on charges of incitement after she was barred from standing against President Paul Kagame in elections.
Diane Rwigara, a 37-year-old accountant, repeatedly accused Kagame of stifling dissent and criticized his Rwandan Patriotic Front’s near total hold on power since it fought its way to office to end a genocide in 1994.
She had planned to run against Kagame in an August election but her candidacy was blocked by the electoral board on the grounds that she had not submitted enough supporters’ signatures and that some of those she did submit were forged.
She and her mother were detained and later charged with incitement. Their trial began last year.
Judge Claire Bukuba at the Rwandan High Court ordered the immediate release on bail of Rwigara and her mother, dismissing the prosecution’s claim that they posed a risk to national security.
But she banned the pair from leaving the capital Kigali without authorization from the public prosecutor.
Kagame is praised for restoring stability in Rwanda and for rapid economic progress after a genocide in 1994, but rights groups say he has muzzled independent media and suppressed opponents. The government dismisses those accusations as false.
As Bukuba read out her ruling to a courtroom packed with diplomats, journalist and relatives of the two women, her decision was greeted with cheers and cries of “Praise to God!”.
Rwigara told Reuters in an interview late on Friday after arriving at her home she would continue pursuing her political ambitions despite her jail experience.
“My political ambitions are just starting. This was a break. I am continuing my political journey. My political journey goes on. I am not stopping my political career. I want to change... the way the country is governed no matter what the cost.”
Rwigara’s sister Anne, who is a U.S. citizen, was also charged last year with incitement though she was later granted bail. After the ruling, Anne told Reuters: “This should not have happened in the first place. They should not have been incarcerated. I don’t know if it is the end of harassment but we hope it is.”
A spokesman for Rwanda’s top prosecutor said that the court decision was based on law and must be respected. “We will consider whether to challenge it or not and of course continue to prepare our trial,” Faustin Nkusi said.
The court’s ruling comes several weeks after Rwanda freed Victoire Ingabire, an opposition leader who had served six years of a 15-year jail term, after Kagame exercised his power to grant a pardon.
After attending Friday’s court hearing, Ingabire said she was very happy that the two Rwigara women had been released. She called on the government to release members of her political party who are still jailed and to release all other “political prisoners” in the country.
“I hope this is the beginning of the opening of political space in Rwanda”, she said.
Ingabire leads an unregistered opposition party, the FDU-Inkigi, and she was freed along with several other prisoners, including singer Kizito Mihigo, jailed in 2015 for plotting to kill Kagame.
Last month, two opposition MPs won seats in the country’s 80-seat parliament for the first time. The legislature is tightly controlled by Kagame’s ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), which fought its way to power to end the genocide.
Reporting by Clement Uwiringiyimana; Writing by Maggie Fick; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Raissa Kasolowsky